A young girl is experiencing betrayal trauma and wants to know ways to help.

Yes, Betrayal Trauma Is Real—Here’s How to Heal

December 6, 2023

5 min.

Betrayal trauma happens when people we trust hurt us, especially caregivers and partners. Keep reading to learn how to heal.

By: Eleanor Blaine

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

Learn more about our Clinical Review Process


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Table of Contents

Betrayal, defined as when someone you trust hurts you or fails to do something they should, can take many different forms. This significant breach of trust may look like infidelity, lies, or breaking confidentiality and can come from family members, friends, co-workers, and partners. Regardless of its nature, betrayal often causes significant emotional and psychological distress—reactions that are the subject of “betrayal trauma theory,” which explores how people respond to certain betrayals. Below, we delve into the concept of “betrayal trauma,” explore the connection between betrayal and mental health, and offer tips for healing from betrayal. 

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What is betrayal trauma, and how does it affect us? 

Betrayal trauma, a term coined by psychologist Jennifer Freyd in 1991, is used by clinicians to describe what happens when the people or institutions we depend on for support and safety violate our trust or well-being. Freyd’s betrayal trauma theory specifically focuses on how betrayal trauma impacts processing and memory. 

Most of Freyd’s analysis focuses on how children respond to abuse perpetrated by parents or caregivers. Since children depend on parents and caregivers for material and emotional support, she suggests that remaining unaware of the abuse (a concept dubbed “betrayal blindness”) may be adaptive for survival. When the person who has betrayed us is someone we need to continue interacting with for our survival, we must continue to behave in a way that will inspire attachment, Freyd argues. Betrayal blindness is also often seen in response to infidelity—a common type of betrayal trauma known as partner betrayal trauma, according to Freyd. 

Perpetrators of betrayal trauma are not limited to individuals. Freyd notes that Institutions can also be responsible for betrayal trauma by taking harmful actions against people dependent on that institution. Institutional betrayal trauma includes failures to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings committed within the context of the institution, like workplace misconduct or societal injustices. Betrayal blindness in response to institutional betrayal trauma may look like people preserving institutional relationships and social systems even though they have caused harm.

Betrayal trauma

Betrayal trauma theory

Betrayal blindness

What happens when the people or institutions we depend on for support and safety violate our trust or well-being.

A theory about how betrayal trauma impacts processing and memory.

The unawareness, not-knowing, and forgetting of betrayals (often done unconsciously).

What are the signs and psychological effects of betrayal trauma? 

As mentioned, one of the most common effects of betrayal trauma is betrayal blindness, meaning the unawareness, not-knowing, and forgetting of betrayals (often done unconsciously). Not everyone experiences betrayal trauma the same way, but Freyd suggests that betrayal blindness is a common occurrence, especially in response to childhood abuse and partner trauma (usually infidelity). Here are examples of what this response may look like. 

Childhood abuse 

In response to childhood abuse (including emotional abuse, physical abuse, and verbal abuse), young people may remain unaware, avoid acknowledging, or selectively forget instances of betrayal by their caregivers. They may also downplay or normalize the caregiver’s abusive behaviors. These examples of betrayal blindness serve as a psychological defense mechanism since most children depend on their caregivers and must protect the relationship despite the harm done. 


Similarly, people may exhibit betrayal blindness in response to cheating by ignoring, avoiding, or forgetting the acts of betrayal. Many people depend on their romantic partners for emotional and social needs, financial security, co-parenting support, and more. Betrayal blindness in response to partner betrayal trauma serves as a coping mechanism, helping protect the emotional attachment and maintain the relationship despite the breach of trust. 

Betrayal and mental health

The body of clinical research on betrayal and mental health extends beyond Freyd’s specific definitions of betrayal trauma and betrayal trauma theory. If trauma is the lasting emotional response to a traumatic event, then we can think of betrayal trauma more broadly as the psychological and emotional reactions after a prolonged betrayal in a meaningful relationship. 

Research shows that when someone experiences betrayal from a trusted person, such as a partner or family member, it can lead to a range of negative emotions, like anxiety, fear, depression, and self-doubt. Betrayal can also take a mental health toll akin to trauma, in some instances leading to trauma symptoms like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex grief, and physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, and difficulty sleeping, according to studies.

Betrayal trauma recovery: how to get help

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing betrayal trauma, as the healing process can vary from person to person. However, several approaches can help manage the impact of betrayal trauma and promote healing. 

Acknowledge and validate your emotions 

Suppressing or ignoring your true emotions about the betrayal is a common feature of betrayal trauma, but it’s important to let yourself feel how you feel—whether that’s anger, sadness, or a sense of loss. Coming to terms with what happened is an important first step on your road to healing. If you’re struggling to connect with your feelings, journaling, making art, or talking to a trusted friend can be effective ways to process your emotions. A therapist can also offer crucial support (more on this below). 

A young male is with a friend acknowledging and validating his emotions in betrayal trauma recovery.

Practice self-care

As you grapple with these emotions, it’s important to take care of yourself. Self-care encompasses activities and behaviors that promote physical, emotional, and mental well-being, including:

  • Exercise 
  • Mindfulness 
  • High-quality sleep 
  • Nutritious meals 
  • Setting boundaries

Seek professional support

Confronting trauma alone can be challenging, and seeking professional support can help you heal. If your betrayal trauma stems from childhood abuse, consider seeking out a therapist skilled in supporting survivors of abuse and neglect. If you’re grappling with partner betrayal trauma, you may want to find a therapist specializing in relationships and possibly consider couples therapy (depending on the situation). A mental health professional can support you in processing emotions, developing coping skills, and working through the betrayal’s impact.

Support for betrayal trauma at Charlie Health

If you’re grappling with betrayal trauma or trauma symptoms in response to betrayal, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people dealing with complex mental health conditions, including trauma. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing betrayal trauma is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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